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All that was left of its calf was a skull swarming with flies and a few other bones collected by crime-scene investigators at South Africa’s Kruger National Park for DNA tests that may one day be used to link the poachers to the stolen horns.
South Africa is on track to lose more than 800 rhinos this year to poachers. Most of them come over the border from Mozambique and sell the horn to international crime syndicates to feed rapidly rising demand in southeast AsiaSouth Africa, home to almost all rhinos on the continent, has deployed its military, diplomats and police to protect the animals from legions of poachers. But that has not been enough to put rhinos on the brink of species decline, whereby more of the animals are being killed than are being born each year.
"We are fighting a counterinsurgency now. The war is escalating. It is more aggressive and there is more firepower," said Johan Jooste, a retired army major-general tasked with militarising the Kruger’s park rangers.
South Africa is on track to lose more than 800 rhinos this year to poachers. Most of them come over the border from Mozambique and sell the horn to international crime syndicates to feed rapidly rising demand in southeast Asia, where it is thought to cure cancer and tame hangovers.
That figure would set a record although it would still not be enough to lead to a decline in the species.
However, more than 1,000 rhinos will be killed in 2014 if the poaching rate increases at its current pace. That means about 5% of South Africa’s rhino population will have been gunned down for horns sold to the newly affluent at pharmacies in places such as Hanoi at prices higher than gold.
"The rate of poaching continues to rise and we are getting ever closer to that dangerous tipping point," said Jo Shaw, rhino co-ordinator at global conservation agency the World Wildlife Fund.
One rhino expert, Richard Emslie, sees the tipping point coming in 2015 under current trends. South Africa’s environment ministry forecasts that point to come in 2016, and once it does, wild rhinos could be wiped out in the country a decade later.
Rhino horn has been used for centuries in Chinese medicine, where it was ground into powder to treat a range of maladies including rheumatism, gout and even possession by devils.
Until about 2010, only a handful were poached but the number shot up when rumours circulated at about the same time in Vietnam that a minister’s relative was cured of cancer by rhino horn. There is no basis in science to support the claim.
The Kruger, a park that covers as much territory as Israel, is at the front line of the battle, but its enormous size has played into the favour of poachers.
To reach the carcasses of the mother and calf required a two-hour hike from the nearest dirt road. It is hard to find a poacher in a vast expanse where disappearing in tall grass is as easy for a leopard as it is for a man with a high-powered rifle.
"Once the poachers fire a shot, they are detected and they have to get the horn across the border as soon as possible," said Frik Rossouw, an environmental management inspector for the park who led the investigation on the rhino cow and calf.
Poachers are usually from poor border villages lured into the trade by crime syndicates, which then transport rhino horn out of Mozambique along the same routes used to bring in drugs from southeast Asia.
Poachers come in groups of about two to five, with enough food and water for the trip and enough firepower to gun down the animals and battle rangers with military assault rifles.
Some poachers try to hide the sounds of their rifles with silencers, but that can reduce accuracy and make it more likely they will go home with nothing.
"The horn on the calf weighed about 1kg, not all that much, but it doesn’t matter for the poachers. Any rhino is fair game for them," Mr Rossouw said.